Can photography or film, according to Benjamin, have its own new type of aura, a uniqueness which allows for reproduction?

This author, Silliman, suggests they cannot, because photography as art is predicated on the model of painting.

But why this means the way an aura appears cannot change, is left, it seems, fairly unelaborated. There is mention of photographic practices always involving both form and content. Is that why: there cannot be a wholesale revolution?

The inevitable penetration of one dimension into the other prohibits photography, as it does any art based on the possibility of reference (i.e. the coexistence of form and content) from resurrecting a true aura [the new sentence p53]

While the tenor of Silliman's arguments suggests that he implies Benjamin agrees, that it cannot, as well as the selections from The Work of Art Silliman quotes from, this is only ever explicitly stated in ambiguous terms.

[Benjamin] does not argue... that a new aura comes into existence, that of a copy as a formal entity, as the object itself. This position, although not explicitly developed in the work of art is consistent with benjamin's stance... [etc., p 48]

  • 1
    References and quotes? to both the Benjamin passage and the Silliman passage.
    – virmaior
    Mar 14 '16 at 1:06
  • @virmaior is that ok? really this text is ambiguous about whether benjamin implies that it cannot have its own aura, or the claim is has no aura is consistent with the text or some part of it.
    – user6917
    Mar 14 '16 at 4:39
  • What does Benjamin say himself? It's a pretty short essay. Something is lost. Something is gained. Photography and film being mechanically reproducible lose out compared to the once-off artwork but make up for it in other ways, but perhaps saying they each have their own type of aura is stretching it, does he actually say that?
    – igravious
    May 20 '16 at 0:22

I apologise for the length of this. All quotations are from the version of "The Work of Art" essay in Illuminations, which is probably the most widely-read version in English.

  1. It is important to be clear about what Benjamin means by "aura". Every work of art is subject to reproduction and has been as long as art has existed, but Benjamin adds:

    Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. (220)

    This "unique existence" encompasses not just the work of art as it is, but also seemingly its being embeded in a tradition, its history, which allows for a certain ascription of "authenticity" to the original work of art. This ascription is not merely accidental, but involves a mode of perception. All of this is encompassed by the term "aura," hence, the famous passage that describes what has changed with the introduction of the mechanical reproduction of art:

    One might subsume the eliminated element in the term "aura" and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. (221)

    What is at stake in the age of the mechanical reproduction of art is not simply the meaning of art itself; it is the perceptual context in which the work of art is perceived.

  2. The name that Benjamin gives to the perceptual context that precedes that of mechanical reproduction is the "cult," so called because the work of art has its origin as art in a sense of ritual:

    The unique value of the "authentic" work of art has its basis in ritual... This ritualistic basis, however remote, is still recognizable as secularized ritual even in the profane forms of the cult of beauty. (224)

    One might think here of curator displays and, indeed, the way some art is treated as revered objects, as if they possessed some sort of higher order. Its this sense of "mystery" and "transcendence" that's withered away in the "loss" of aura. But, moreover, this loss inaugurates a new understanding of art altogether:

    For the first time in world history, mechanized reproduction emancipates the work of art from its particular dependence on ritual. (224)

    Art ceases to be embedded in a context of "ritual" and becomes a matter of a certain politics.

  3. Benjamin seems clear that photographs, at least, can attain a sense of aura:

    It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.

    So here, at least, is the simple answer to your question: photographs (and probably films, too) can acquire "aura." This is because "aura" isn't specifically about the means by which the work of art is produced; it has to do with the social context in which the work appears as a work of art.

  4. Having arrived at the simple answer, there's a serious problem here. On the one hand, while we haven't fully transitioned from the cult of beauty into the context of a new sort of art, it's also not obvious that we can simply go back to the context of the cult of beauty. Art has become revolutionised by the introduction of the means of mechanical reproduction:

    Much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question—whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art—was not raised. (227)

    Benjamin seems to think that the means of the mechanical reproduction of art has already changed the nature and character of art. This means that its not (for Benjamin, at any rate) simply a matter of "choosing" how one sees or presents art: such a "choice" already embodies a political decision. Hence, he writes in the preface to the essay that the theses he presents are "a weapon":

    They brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery—concepts whose uncontrolled... application would lead to a processing of data in the Fascist sense. The concepts which are introduced into the theory of art in what follows differ from the more familiar terms in that they are completely useless for the purposes of Fascism. They are, on the other hand, useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art. (218)

    The question, then, is what is at stake in searching for a "new type of aura"? (I am not trying to say that such a task is implicitly Fascist; I'm just trying to indicate that for Benjamin, the stakes have changed and one can no longer consider art absent its political context).

  • so with the cult of beauty, before mechanical reproduction, we could consider artworks outside their political context?
    – user6917
    Jun 15 '16 at 18:13
  • Not exactly. It would've been a different political context though. Benjamin more or less flags the essay as an attempt to think aproletarian theory of art.
    – ig0774
    Jun 15 '16 at 19:23

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